After reading comments and a couple of email responses about my Ross and Rachel article, I thought of an additional point to make (or another way to make the same point, I suppose, which is that it’s a male privilege to think the relationship is all or nothing). One of the emails pointed out that women can also define relationships as all or nothing, which is absolutely true. But I think much depends on what it is you’re asking for from the other person, and how closely that matches the usual gender script. For example, if you’re a woman who wants security from a man, that’s not so hard to get because men are culturally trained to provide that to women. But if you’re a woman who wants a man to support your ambitions and admire that you can out-shoot him, that’s far more rare because there is no cultural script that supports men admiring women. In fact, in works like Annie Get Your Gun, we talented gals are advised to screw up on purpose so our men can see us as inferior and therefore be comfortable loving us. It’s we who must adjust, not the men.
The case of Ross and Rachel is very gender-flipped (perhaps intentionally) in terms of the usual stereotypes. Rachel wants Ross not to be possessive and suspicious; not to interrupt her at her job; not to expect her to put him ahead of the job. Ross’ role is the traditional female TV whiner girlfriend who’s too silly to understand why her man can’t just thumb his nose at the boss and leave early for a picnic. Rachel’s role is the traditional beleaguered guy who’s in love with a whiner. What Rachel wants is not what men are culturally trained to give women: freedom to pursue her ambitions and fulfill herself through a career. It’s hardly surprising Ross doesn’t get it, and perhaps that’s why we want to cut him some slack.
Or perhaps it’s just because he’s a man and we expect women to do the extra work to keep relationships afloat, and by not doing that, Rachel doesn’t deserve any better than she gets. Look at the situation gender-flipped, and tell me the first thought you have isn’t to condemn Rachel:
Rachel is suspicious and possessive of Ross, who’s got a gorgeous female co-worker (whom we know he treats strictly as a co-worker/pal). Rachel tries to lure Ross away from his job, but he says he’s too busy with a deadline, so she shows up at his office with a picnic basket. Ross gets mad because she’s interrupting his work day at a crucial time and embarrassing him in front of his boss.
Later Ross comes to see her to give her a chance to apologize. Rachel doesn’t see why she should apologize; as his girlfriend, she thinks she should come ahead of any ol’ job. Rachel asks if this is really about his gorgeous co-worker. Indignant, Ross says he can’t keep having this conversation and says “Maybe we should take a break… no, I mean a break from us.”
Rachel huffs out and soon thereafter sleeps with the first available man she can find.
Really try to picture this, really try to imagine it with Rachel making all the insane demands and then revenge-dating the instant Ross stands up to her harpy crap, and tell me your first thought isn’t a variation on “What a bitch.”
I’ll admit it; when I first saw the show, I could see both characters’ viewpoints about the “break.” Only later did I come to see Ross as the jealous harpy who deserves to be broken up with. But switch the genders – with Rachel as the harpy – and I’d be a lot quicker to single her out for most (perhaps all) of the blame. Because before I was taught to think critically, taught to see privilege and recognize cultural programming, I had it drilled into me that when a relationship was rocky, it was the woman’s job to fix it, and if she didn’t the man was entitled to dump her and go find someone better. Even if the man was the cause of all or most of the relationship problems.